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Flying Blind

September 24, 2008

One of the many fascinating things I learned last week while attending an afternoon-long "Chant Camp" in Silicon Valley led by two members of the great New York-based early music collective, Anonymous 4, was that it is in fact possible to learn a piece of music quickly and easily without having to refer to a score.

When I had previously tried to pick up some of Hildegard von Bingen's chants while preparing for a production of Ordo Virtutum by Hildegard von Bingen alongside fellow singers in San Francisco Renaissance Voices, I found the score indispensable. We tried a couple of times to learn chants by repeating phrases back to our director, but we didn't get very far. Now I realize that this might have been because I was scared.

To most classically-trained western musicians, the idea of learning music by ear is completely foreign. We use our eyes first to read the notes on the page, learn the music, and, eventually, if we're skilled, get to the point where we can play or sing the notes off by heart.

But this way of getting to grips with a composition isn't the only way to do it, as workshop leaders Martha Genensky and Susan Hellauer (two members of Anonymous 4) proved to us. They encourage workshop participants to learn music by listening, which is how most chant would have been learned in Medieval Times as the monks and nuns generally couldn't read musical notation.

Over the course of a mere half hour or so at the workshop, we surprisingly managed to absorb several winding lines of chant by memory. Some of us were tempted to look at the music we had been given, but I did what I was told and put my manuscript paper down. Instead I concentrated on listening to Hellauer and Genensky singing short phrases of the chants to the group and repeating them back. It helped that a lot of the words were simple and well known (mostly standard liturgical lines like "Benedicamus Domino"). I found that after about two repetitions, I was able to get the flow of the phrase pretty well. After five, I more or less had the line down. The tricky part was remembering how to string all the little blocks together -- remembering which little phrase to tack on to the previous one to create the whole piece.

It was strangely liberating to learn music in this way. I might try to apply what I learned in the Chant Camp to other kinds of music. In terms of getting the all-important flow of the line in plainchant though, this ears-only method is indispensable because it makes all the singers in the group tune into each others' energy right from the first note of the first hearing. It's a pretty powerful method.

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